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Prayer for the week

19 December 2014

The human face of Christmas is the adult Christ as well as the baby Jesus, says Kevin Ellis


Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

from Philippians 2.5-11

IN THE church where I served my curacy, St Katharine's, Matson, in the diocese of Gloucester, the same container doubled as Christmas crib and Easter garden. The theological richness of this symbol still makes me smile, even though it was for reasons of storage. Neither manger nor cross is what we might deem fitting for the one whom Christians proclaim as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

The passage I have deliberately chosen for this column as we celebrate the feast of Christmas is one of the earliest Christian prayers, and it is one that conjoins the incarnation with the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. St Paul's words at the beginning of the prayer trip off the tongue, as we have grown accustomed to their recitation as canticle and creed in Anglican worship.

What scholars have referred to as the "self-emptying" of God is for us this Christmas time revealed in the face of the baby. There is something about a newborn baby which causes even the most melancholy of us to break into a smile.

On the streets of Holyhead, recently, as children were dressing up in nativity clothes to be photographed (#tweetthenativity), a small boy was spontaneously handed his baby sister to hold, and there was a sudden hush as adults and children alike were captivated by the wonder of the moment. Wesley's hymn encapsulates what took place in Bethlehem all those years ago quite beautifully: 

Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made Man.

Delightful though the image of the baby is, the incarnation is much more than the story of a birth, star, shepherds, animal feeding-trough, and visitors from afar. It is about the person that the baby grows into: how he lived, died, and was raised to life for us.

This Christmas, therefore, I wonder whether we might dare to be challenged afresh by the human adult that the baby became, marvelling that he set aside everything in order to serve, offering us a pattern for living, and even dying for us.

Such a thought disturbs our celebrations, even though, with the Teacher, we should be able to acknowledge that "there is a time to be born and a time to die." Paul's prayer goes beyond death into new life and, with that, to the exaltation of Jesus. This brief intercession is permeated with numerous theological themes - as perhaps all prayer is, or should be, even though some of the themes may be a little out of focus at this time of year.

With Paul, though, as we celebrate Christ's coming, we can do homage to the Christ-child by offering ourselves to work always to the glory of God the Father. Or, as Paul puts it elsewhere, by offering ourselves to be living sacrifices as we work for his praise and great glory.

The Revd Dr Kevin Ellis is the Vicar of Bro Cybi, in the diocese of Bangor.

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